The Arpa Valley is one of the main wine growing areas of Armenia, and that needs to be sampled, of course. With varying results.
So far we have tried various Armenian wines, with various success. Our favourite is the Karas, either the red blend or the white blend, although other brands, like Takar and Frunzik, are also quite acceptable. Mind you, none of these come for less than 15 Euros a bottle in the supermarket.
Time to visit the main wine producing area of Armenia, the Arpa Valley and the Vayots Dzor plateau, some 1800 meters above sea level. Our first stop is the Old Bridge Winery, where we intend to have lunch and take the wine tasting package. But considering what is included in the tasting package – not only four wines, but bruschetta, cheese, olives and a lot more – we skip lunch. And the wines are quite OK, from a reasonable white, made from the indigenous Voskehat grape, to an un-memorable rose and two red wines, from the equally indigenous Areni Noire. Altogether a very pleasant experience, our first serious Armenian wine tasting.
The Old Bridge in the name of the winery refers to the 13th Century Dadal bridge over the Arpa river, away from the main road. It is a very steep bridge, made of pink sandstone and lime mortar, and not a bad idea to put small poles on either end, to prevent cars from crossing: they would no doubt get stuck at the top. The bridge is another reminder that at least one branch of the Silk Road crossed Armenia, on its way to European riches.
The second wine tasting, in the Areni Wine Factory, is, shall we say, less impressive. We have another white, quite undrinkable, and two reds, of which the clay pot-type – what in Georgia is called the Qveri type, which means drop the grapes in a clay pot, cover them and let them ferment without much processing – is equally undrinkable. As all tasting is free here, we decide to buy one bottle, the other red, and so we have established the necessary contact. The lady is actually quite happy to show us the cellar, if we like? We like, and the cellar is exactly what I would love to have at home, one day! (well, perhaps with my own choice of wine, but anyhow.) The entire wall is covered in wooden racks, full of bottles. Around the corner she shows us the clay pots, all of them brightly painted at the top – the bottom is buried underground. Afterall, another nice experience, although perhaps less for the wine.
A little later, along the main road, I want to take a picture of the large plastic bottles filled with wine. Apparently, very popular with the Iranian truck drivers, because it just looks like Coca Cola. I walk up to one of the many random stalls, only to realize that it is not random at all; the man who runs the stall has a little underground cellar right next to it. His production centre, no less. He invites me in, insist on me trying his red wine – not fabulous, but never mind – and on trying his apricot cognac – fabulous! To the extent that I felt compelled to buy a small bottle, so he fills a 0.5 l plastic water bottle for me. How I am going to carry that home, I am not sure yet….
Areni is also the place where, allegedly, the oldest wine making equipment has been found, dated 6200 years ago. The Areni-1 cave has all the evidence, but it is too hot, we decide to skip the cave. Instead, we drive to the Noravank Monastery, through a spectacular narrow gorge. When the gorge widens, the monastery is high up on a ledge, quite nicely situated. Although the oldest ruins are 9th Century, the working church is 13th C, and over the years more buildings have been added. There are some nice decorative carvings, especially over some of the entrance doors – but for non-specialists like us, all those monasteries are increasingly looking like each other. Travel fatigue?
Next: comfort in Goris.